As March moves in, I look at my calendar to see what significant days there may be that I need to mark for the month. And most certainly the International Women’s Day stands out among the birthdays and festivities that dot the month. And then I think is March 8 supposed to be “celebrated?” Is there cause for celebration? Festivals, birthdays and holidays can be celebrated but about Women’s Day – I am not so sure. We could perhaps highlight the achievements of women, their struggles, and experiences and highlight feminine principles that guide our cultural sentiments. Flowers, jewels, discounted air fare, Hallmark cards, chocolates add to the market driven and perceived merriment.
The day most certainly has a wider significance. It is an occasion to review how far women have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for meaningful change. This year’s theme as established by the international community is “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty.” Increasing labor opportunities and returns for poor women in rural areas is pro-poor and improves family and social welfare is increasingly evidenced in literature. Increasing women’s earnings and share of family income has been shown to empower women by strengthening their bargaining power in the household.
As an Indian reviewing what is out there -- is relevant. More than half the girls in India marry before the age of 18. The younger the bride the greater the risk — and her child's— of being trapped in poverty and becoming malnourished, anemic and at risk for maternal mortality. More than 45 percent of women in India have no say in decisions about their own health and 70 percent of the school-aged children who are not enrolled in school are girls.
One’s lived and observed experiences show another picture not very different from the facts presented earlier. Living and working in India in the 1980s and 1990s we looked for personalities that would inspire us as we chose our education and career paths. And we quickly realized that each one of us had different battles to fight to reach our goals. We are not all Kiran Bedis and Arundhati Roys who quite certainly overcame serious roadblocks to reach where they are.
Coming from urban middle income salaried families, the approach to success was undivided attention to studies and relentless and diligent work ethic. Many jobs in social development which is the field I chose required traveling to remote corners of the country and that set emotions at home running that concerned my safety. Some projects were handed to male colleagues because they would be “heard” better by communities. Women colleagues would be given projects that particularly focused say, on women’s health, completely ignoring that men have a role to play in that. We traveled to small towns and villages with men on our field teams even though they were less accomplished only because their presence could ward off nuisance attention. Many will find this experience resonating in other career fields and the need to prove oneself.
A survey conducted last year by United Nations stated that women in the national capital feel unsafe in many public spaces, and at all times of the day and night. Public transport, buses and roadsides are reported as spaces where women and girls face high levels of sexual harassment. The report says the most common forms of harassment are “verbal (passing lewd comments), visual (staring and leering) and physical (touching or groping or leaning over).” While there are plenty of “L” (ladies) special buses, and “ladies” only seats reserved in buses, they only served to drive the inequalities further. Separated and packed together, the civic administration seeks to ignore the problem and relegate it to the back burner. Sexual harassment of women in public places restricts their general mobility and left without any mechanism for redress.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a woman is raped somewhere in India every 25 minutes. And there were 2,659 cases of human trafficking registered in the country in 2008, the latest year for which data are available. According to a research paper by Indian jurists, at least 900 cases of honor killings take place annually in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. UN statistics indicate that at least 14 women are murdered by their own in-laws in India daily.
Organizations and individuals work tirelessly to support gender equality through a multitude of initiatives, causes and actions. Deep seated gender based discrimination and very low political participation remain challenging in the process of bringing about change. It is only with concerted efforts of all hands and entities that the day can be made more celebratory that validates women’s self identity, their worth and their place in communities, nation and beyond. Until that happens, March 8 for an Indian or any other nationality remains a day to remind ourselves about what more can be done to bring about change.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.